In the apocryphal work entitled the ACTS OF THE APOSTLE THOMAS is to be found a gnostic poem entitled the "Song of the Apostle Judas Thomas in the Land of the Indians." Most modern translators have dubbed this religious poem the "Hymn of the Pearl."
This title is somewhat inaccurate since the poem is clearly didactic in its intent, and narrative in its form. The poem is commonly interpreted as a characteristic example of the Iranian version of gnosticism.
The Iranian gnosis attained to its greatest influence with the dualistic teachings of Mani and the religion he founded, Manichaeism. This influence peaked during the third and fourth centuries A.D, although the influence of Manichaeism extended throughout the Middle Ages.
Manichaeism attained so great a stature at its height of popularity that it almost replaced Christianity as the mass religion offering personal salvation and engaged in systematic missionary work to promote this goal. Its teachings were quite contrary to the doctrines of the catholic churchmen, widespread and attractive. Until the end of the Middle Ages, in fact, the term heresy was virtually synonymous with Manichaeism.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the popularity of Manichaeism peaked a second time in the form of Catharism. In fact, Catharism posed such a serious threat to the Catholic Church that the churchmen felt compelled to suppress it violently which they attempted to do with the so-called Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century. Despite the efforts to eradicate it, Catharism continued to flourish until the Reformation.
Mani's catholicity even extended beyond the Christian model, which he purposely intended to replace. Where other gnostics appealed to the select few with hidden interpretations of existing scriptures, Mani's goal was nothing less than creating a novel revelation, establishing a new body of scripture and founding a new church meant to supersede any and all existing ones.
By taking simple Zoroastrian dualism with its two co-eternal principles of opposition as his point of departure, Mani obviated most of the theoretical subtleties that rendered other forms of gnosticism incomprehensible to the masses. In fact, other gnostics made a point of their theoretical speculation and viewed themselves as the elite few, divided by a gulf of esoteric knowledge from the mass of Christians of simple faith.
By doing away with gnostic elitism of thought and organization, Manichaeism became a broad historic force and because of its huge popularity and lasting influence one of the major religions of mankind. Mani saw himself as the founder of a universal religion, so Manichaeism contained nothing esoteric.
In principle, Mani acknowledged the validity of other revelations which had preceded him. In practice, he made the first deliberate attempt in recorded history to synthesize existing religious elements into a new model. Mani fused with Zoroastrian principles, Buddhist and Christian elements along with his own teachings. Hence, he could claim to be the fourth and concluding prophet in an historical series and present his teachings as the consummation of that of his predecessors. This same technique would later be utilized by Mohammed.
On the practical level of proselytizing his new religion, Mani could selectively emphasize whatever part of the Manichaean synthesis that best suited the minds of his hearers. His initial success seemed to justify his approach. At its height, Manichaeism spanned Europe, the Middle East and extended into India and central Asia. Its missionaries carried its message into the Orient far beyond the range of Christianity where some branches of the Manichaean sect survived for centuries after its suppression in the west by the victorious Catholic Church.
The heart of Manichaean doctrine was Mani's own speculation upon the gnostic myth of cosmic exile and salvation. Stripped of its mythological detail, it would reappear again and again in the Christian west in opposition to orthodoxy. Because of this fact, Manichaeism became the most important product of Gnosticism.
Mani postulated two primeval natures, one good and the other evil. In his Zoroastrian model these two had actually been named "Good" and "Evil" and also "light and darkness," "god and matter." The two are co-eternal and completely unconnected. Light is totally self contained and self sufficient and shines only for itself and has no desire to "enlighten" the dark, which left to its own would simply fulfil its purpose, which is to be darkness.
Darkness, however, somehow caught a glimpse of the light and thereafter desired it for itself, for the purpose of avoiding its own odious company. The result was a protracted cosmic struggle between good and evil whose final battleground is the human soul.
At the beginning of this cosmic war darkness managed to capture some of the light. The forces of good developed a strategy to recapture this stolen light. But evil possesses a devilish intelligence. As the cosmic war progressed evil eventually devised the ultimate weapon, by finally creating the human race and by creating the device of sexual reproduction to insure the continued captivity of light.
Light fights at a disadvantage since it can do no harm. Its only recourse is to dispatch an emissary of itself into the world, come under the sway of darkness for a while and then banish the darkness from within. This emissary is the Primal Man and much of Manichaean mythology details his misadventures in the realm of darkness, where he is at first stunned into captivity, then revived by the prompting of inspiration and at last triumphant, although not immediately.
In the cosmic war between good and evil three creations came to be. The first was that of the creation of Primal Man and his descent and captivity. The second creation was that of the "Living Spirit" or "Demiurge" who came to inspire Primal Man and secure his release. Up to this point, however, there existed no actual physical universe as we would know it. The liberation of the Primal Man was only partly successful, and as a result the physical universe as we know it came into existence from the intermingling of the elements of captured light within the dark.
The third creation was that of the "Messenger" who set the universe into motion and thereby began the process of extracting the entrapped light. In Manichaean cosmology, the motion of the stars represents the process of extraction of light from darkness. Evil reacted to this stratagem by creating man.
The origins of mankind Manichaean mythology expounds in extensive and often disgusting detail. The gist of the story was intended to demonstrate the evil nature of human existence and sexual procreation. These are viewed as insidious mechanisms created by the powers of darkness to enable them to continue possession of light and prevent its ultimate extraction.
The first man, Adam, was enticed by the Primal Man, in the form of the Manichaean "Luminous Jesus," to eat of the tree of knowledge and learn the truth. But Adam was then seduced by Eve who was the embodiment of all desire and concupiscence. Due to the resulting fact of sexual reproduction the mission of Luminous Jesus becomes protracted into the history of mankind, necessitating his repeated return with the words of truth. Mani, of course, was the latest of these incarnations.
Due to the mythological story of the Garden of Eden and Luminous Jesus, Christians accused the Manichaeans of worshipping Satan. To this accusation the followers of Mani could assert that in fact the very opposite was true. In the Manichaean view Christians in their ignorance were the worshippers of evil, since the creators of the Garden and the physical world were none other than the forces of darkness. The "jealous God" had indeed created man in his own image and that image was darkness and depravity.
The ensuing history of the world and of the human race becomes a continual process of freeing the light from its entanglement with matter. The good moves inexorably towards the light, while evil moves towards darkness. And the ultimate end state will be the reinstatement of the beginning, when light and darkness, good and evil co-exist separate and apart from one another.
In this view, human beings in their natural state are nothing but the created pawns of the powers of evil. Sex and the procreation of children serve only the purposes of evil. The continued enslavement of light in the prison of matter was the sole purpose of creation.
The ethical and practical conclusions to Mani's cosmology and soteriology are simple and clear cut. They amount to a rigorous and total asceticism, and the most exaggerated concept of sin ever devised. Eating was restricted to vegetables, for even though containing entrapped light, they were at least not sentient. Marriage, love and sex were to be avoided so as to prevent the continued entrapment of divine power in generation after generation of human beings. Poverty was to be embraced to avoid comfort in this evil world.
Realist that he was, however, Mani reserved the full rigours of his teachings for a select group known as the "Elect," who must have led a monastic life of extreme asceticism. This may have been modelled partly on Buddhist monasticism and certainly influenced the Christian monasticism that would follow after it. The great mass of Manichaean followers were permitted a less rigorous lifestyle that included amongst its meritorious actions care for the elect, again very clearly similar to Buddhism.
In our day of unbridled and unquestioned materialism, one might wonder that such an ascetic religion as Manichaeism could find widespread acceptance. Yet it certainly did so and throughout many centuries. What, in fact, was so appealing about this religion that perhaps more so than any before or since repudiated the joys and experiences of human life?
Finding a complete answer to this question requires a more detailed study than space permits here. It is also not particularly relevant to our present examination. Suffice it to say that part of Manichaean appeal lay in its simplistic explanation for the nearly universal human experience of mental and physical dissociation, the feeling that your mind and consciousness are something apart from your physical body.
Other systems before and since have attempted to account for this common phenomenon. Manichaeism, however, rivals modern Christian fundamentalism in the simplicity of its explanation and the expectations placed upon its adherents. For if only the strong and courageous could live the life of the Elect, the masses could at least by their imperfect emulation of the few aspire to liberate some small amount of light essence from the world and thereby insure their own salvation in the next incarnation.
Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) was himself a Manichaean, and a Neoplatonist, as well. He converted to the Roman sect in the year 387 A.D. after much personal soul searching, which he recorded in detail in the "Confessions." Augustine publicly repudiated Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, but there can be no serious doubt that both continued to influence his thought. In fact, it was primarily through the doctrines of Augustine and his contemporary, Gregory of Nyssa, that Neoplatonism influenced Christian orthodoxy. And it almost entirely due to Augustine's efforts that Manichaean ideas became prevalent.
In his understanding of catholicism, Augustine retained Manichaeism's dualism, including its theory of human depravity, modified by Neoplatonist idealism. He soon proceeded to entrench these ideas in the dogmas of the Roman Church, and in the process turned it upside down. For the Christian church after Augustine little resembled its first and second century ancestors.
No one could seriously argue that Augustine's influence on the development of the doctrines of the Catholic Church was anything less than profound. No other single man, with the possible exception of Paul, has had a greater impact. Augustine's greatest accomplishment in this task was the introduction of his doctrine of original sin.
Of course, Augustine did not invent the concept of original sin. It had been around in various guises since the beginning of Christianity, and before amongst the Hebrews. But Augustine added a new twist to the idea. In fact, so unorthodox and so clearly Manichaean were his novel fabrications that Augustine's version of original sin met with opposition on a wide front from his Roman contemporaries.
The furore over original sin, with Augustine fulminating at its center, raged throughout the first half of the fifth century. In this famous and well documented debate, Augustine, in all his eloquence and fury, squared off against both his Pelagian peers and such earlier Christian luminaries as John Chrysostom, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria. These Fathers of the Church had shared the ancient Greek concept of kosmos, that is, that the natural world is an essential harmony and man a part of it possessing free volition.
Of course, the classical philosophers attributed kosmos to an inherently logical nature, whereas the Christian Fathers attributed it to the world's creation in the image of God. Yet both schools of thought accepted as a consequent fact that the natural world exhibited coherence to logic and laws, and that human beings exercised free will with which they could choose to do good or ill.
The nature of the world and mankind's place in it forms the core of the argument over original sin, a concept which would have been totally alien to the classical philosophers. In classical theory the human soul shared with divinity the natural tendency to do good and to seek the truth. That it might be otherwise inclined was an oriental, and particularly Near Eastern invention. To the Christian Fathers, human nature was "fallen," because of Adam's sin, but was not by its very nature corrupt.
The battle over original sin began with Augustine's Confessions. There he attacked the venerable notion that human beings really have a free will. After discounting free will, Augustine went on to equate sexual desire with original sin and sexual procreation as the mechanism through which original sin is transmitted through the generations. He painted a vivid picture of a nature turned evil and of humanity enslaved by a depraved nature and the natural impulses.
Augustine's theories appalled his contemporaries. Most Christians of the time held the conviction of free will and a benign nature. They accepted nature as good because God had created it, and humanity as being morally free because made in God's image.
The British monk Pelagius became the first to speak out against Augustine's preposterous theories and the battle was joined. Essentially, Pelagius argued the classical view. The world was kosmos and human beings free agents whose very nature inclined them to seek God and goodness. Consequently, they required no extraordinary "grace" from God to move them in the right direction. The sin of Adam had been Adam's only, and not visited upon his children to the nth generation.
The disagreements could simply have ended with a compromise on the nature of grace and its role in Christian life. But Augustine was not a man to compromise, and as the theological debate continued he further developed his views into a full blown theory of human depravity. The opposing sides soon became too polarized for compromise and the debate became a fight to the death.
So very radical did Augustine's position ultimately become that, although he eventually won out, his theory was never accepted in total by the churchmen. With Augustine the classical world view of kosmos died. It was replaced by the gnostic concept of cosmic malevolence. The world was no longer man's natural home, but instead his prison.
The elder Augustine's obsession with original sin only came to an end with his death in 430. Interestingly enough, three years before his demise, Augustine completed his Retractions. In this work he criticised his own writings in light of Catholic orthodoxy to which he believed he had progressively conformed over the years of his life. He may have convinced himself of his growing conformity, but what he had actually accomplished in his lifetime was to conform Catholic orthodoxy to his mould.
Augustine's death culminated his famous twelve year argument with Julian of Eclanum, who very accurately accused Augustine of heresy. Like Pelagius, Julian argued the classical view of natural goodness. Point by point, Julian detailed Augustine's theories and demonstrated their Manichaean sources.
To little avail, the Roman church finally accepted Augustine's novel theory of original sin, although not in full. So powerful had Augustine become, that the churchmen next proceeded to declare Julian himself to be a heretic and excommunicated him. Just as they had previously excommunicated his mentor Pelagius.
In truth, Julian of Eclanum was a humble and devout Christian in direct spiritual descent from the first and second century fathers of the church. He had simply tried to defend what had always been the orthodox position on man's free will and nature. His condemnation for heresy was about as blatant a case of influence peddling as the sorry records of the Roman church have ever produced. He did not lose the fight because his views were heretical, which they certainly were not, at least not until Augustine's theory was accepted. He lost because he was a gentle man who made the mistake of thinking logic and truth were sufficient means to success.
Against a man like Augustine, who used every means of persuasion at his disposal, Julian did not stand a chance. Even with two hundred years of orthodoxy on his side and supported by the writings of such men as John Chrysostom, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, Julian failed. He failed because he was defending a world view that was passing from the stage of history.
Augustine was cruel and fanatic and adept at manipulating those who possessed the power to decide the case. He was relentless and conniving. Finally, his allies included Jerome, whose influence at the time was enormous. By the time the battle was over, there was no room for dissent within the ranks of the new orthodoxy.
The earlier condemnation of Pelagius had also been a sorry case of political intrigue and bribery. Augustine, at the center of the controversy, lobbied pope and emperor alike to get his way. With Pelagius and his allies disposed of, Augustine's version of original sin won the day.
Thus, through the zealous obsession of one very troubled man, a gnostic concept that was both pernicious and subtle entered into the mainstream of orthodox Christian dogma. Ironically, the very church that had declared the gnostics heretical came to accept one of the most insidious gnostic ideas.
Augustine had found the eschatological theories of Mani convincing. His own tortured soul as a young man seemed to be locked in mortal combat with itself. His own will proved helpless to alleviate the inner conflict he endured. The dualism of Mani seemed to be demonstrated beyond doubt within himself.
The feelings of helplessness that Augustine experienced within himself in his struggle to control his natural impulses and desires, and especially his apparently nearly insatiable sexual appetite, would ultimately forge his excessive theory of original sin. Perhaps Augustine felt that if he could not control his sexual desires, it was not his responsibility. He was merely the victim of a corrupt human nature over which no man after Adam could be expected to exercise wilful control. His very own thoughts were beyond his capacity to control them.
Apparently, after his break with Manichaeism the eloquent Augustine was either unable or unwilling to see the Manichaean undercurrent in his thinking. Yet as Julian demonstrated, and anyone who cares to make the comparisons can demonstrate to himself, the Manichaean element was both pervasive and deep.
Subsequent Christian luminaries as influential to the church as Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther considered Augustine's doctrine of original sin and the corruption of nature totally accurate. Aquinas, and later John Calvin, argued for the acceptance of Augustine's doctrines even more fully than the fifth century churchmen had found palatable.
The true meaning of this gnostic view of human nature and its full impact on orthodox Christianity can scarcely be overestimated. Esoteric Christianity as described by James Pryse shares a nearly identical viewpoint. As I shall demonstrate later the degradation of the world and human nature is a direct consequence of the patriarchal metaphysic. Its destruction of the concept of kosmos was the final blow to what remained of the metaphysic of ecstasy as a force in world history. Afterwards, the doctrines of the metaphysic of ecstasy survived only in secret.
By examining the important "Hymn of the Pearl" we can come to a basic understanding of this gnostic view of human life. I would also like to shine a different light upon the poem, and also upon its alternative version, the biblical parable of the "Prodigal Son," which follows. By doing so I hope to clarify succinctly the fundamental doctrine expounded by the metaphysic of ecstasy regarding the human journey on earth. Both the poem of the Pearl and the parable of the prodigal reveal significant aspects of the metaphysic of ecstasy. They do so because, like the Apocalypse, the story is based on earlier source material deriving from the metaphysic of ecstasy.
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